Sex Up Against Culture

Review Essay: Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent by Katherine Angel (Verso, 2021), and The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century by Louise Perry (Polity Press, 2022)

In the promotion for the SBS documentary Asking For It, author and journalist Jess Hill speaks directly to camera, declaring that there is a new sexual revolution afoot ‘and this time it is all about consent’. In the somewhat foreboding grab that appeared each night in the lead-up to the program’s release, one young woman’s words are edited down to ‘It really is just as simple as asking a question’, with the implication that this question would have prevented a sexual assault. It sounds, well, so simple. Indeed, if Jess Hill is correct and there is a ‘red-hot national conversation going on about consent’, then as this promo indicates, it is a conversation taking place within a limited discourse based upon certain unquestioned assumptions. These include a conviction that our desire is transparent to ourselves, and that it is knowable, stable and easily communicated to others. There is also a presumption that that desire can be easily contractualised and is undisrupted by the unconscious. This is not to dismiss the myriad of ways in which consent is crucial and necessary: legally, ethically, and not least in its idealism as a mechanism to ensure a more equal distribution of pleasure in sexual encounters and prevent sexual violence. But what are the problems in the realm of sexuality and power that cannot be solved by consent? What kind of sexual subject is being produced within this increasingly pervasive and seemingly unconflicted ‘consent culture’?

The simple and seemingly commonsensical conversation around consent makes it difficult to turn a critical eye to the concept. Two books attempt to do this by rejecting the questionable optimism around consent and addressing its inadequacy to bear the weight of our emancipatory desires. Significantly, both begin with a reference to Marilyn Monroe. In Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, Katherine Angel opens with an epigraph from Jacqueline Rose, refusing depictions of Monroe’s options as either representing ‘triumph or defeat’. The epigraph signals the more psychoanalytically inflected and nuanced reading of consent advanced by Angel. By contrast, in the opening pages of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution Louise Perry quotes Andrea Dworkin’s conclusion that Monroe was ‘fucked to death’ by her lovers and fans. In vivid and confronting detail, Perry documents the humiliation, exploitation and abuse of Monroe as a metaphor for the disproportionate cost for women of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and beyond. Both books locate the current debate about consent within what they view as a problematic liberal or ‘choice feminist’ framework.

The concept of ‘consent culture’ is clearly outlined by Katherine Angel in Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again. It is a culture in which a heavy burden is placed on women’s speech. The title of Angel’s book is taken from a derisive comment made by Michel Foucault in 1976, in relation to what he saw as a dominant countercultural or libertarian stance in the sixties and seventies that emancipation and liberation would inevitably follow once the truth about sex was told. Following Foucault, Angel’s focus is not on the silence around sex and desire but rather on the repressions that operate in contemporary rhetoric around ‘truth-telling’. Women’s speech about their desire is ‘both demanded and idealised’ by consent culture, she argues, and by the axiom that consent will transform and solve all the ills of our sexual culture.

What is not tolerated in this form of regulation is ambivalence—particularly any difficulty or delay in speaking our desire, let alone not knowing what we want in the first place. In this respect, consent culture is embedded in a broader ‘confidence culture’ in which there is an injunction to know what you want and say it with confidence. Angel invites us to stroll through any bookshop and note the array of ‘bright, celebratory volumes, reminding us of women’s extraordinary resilience in the face of injustice’. The term ‘confidence culture’ was coined by Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad in Australian Feminist Studies to denote what they see as a pervasive view that women are not constrained by patriarchy, capitalism or institutionalised sexism, but rather by ‘their own, individual lack of confidence—a lack framed as an entirely personal matter’. The woman ‘who is hurtable’ or vulnerable, Angel notes, is therefore putting herself at risk according to these dominant cultural directives. Direct, assertive speech is deemed to cover all lacks or deficiencies, as well as inequalities of power.

This connection between consent culture and confidence culture, and its uneven impact on women, is drawn well by Angel:

Consent, and its conceit of absolute clarity, places the burden of good sexual interaction on women’s behaviour—on what they want and on what they can know and say about their wants; on their ability to perform a confident sexual self in order to ensure that sex is mutually pleasurable and non-coercive.

It is a culture with clear imperatives about what it means to be a contemporary, empowered sexual subject. Women are commanded to speak their desires loudly, with surety and self-assurance. ‘Silence does not belong with us here’, Angel observes; ‘it belongs to the past and to the abject female subject of yore’. She identifies a paradox in this discourse on consent. As attested by the rise in and complexity of consent protocols in public and private institutions, women are positioned as both vulnerable and without agency, while at the same time the fact of their actual vulnerability to violence is disavowed in cultural discourses about how strong and inviolable they can be. Regardless of this contradiction, sex is treated as an object, something a man wants and something women are required to police by either agreeing to it or refusing to agree.

A much more relational, complex understanding of desire and subjectivity is proposed in this thoughtful book. Angel references Freud’s still radical theorisation that sexuality is not a given, but rather acquired, with difficulty and always provisionally. According to her reading, ‘Freud’s female sexuality was unstable and suffused with ambiguity’. To note, there is nothing simple or clear-cut in the taking up of a sexed position in childhood or in the sexual formation of a subject. It is difficult, though, to take account of this provisionality, or ambiguity, as a fundamental characteristics of human desire when legal definitions of consent are concerned. There is an unease even in consent culture about the danger of promoting such a univocal and contractual model of desire. Consequently, the rhetoric has been modified and refined to incorporate notions of ‘affirmative’ consent, or ‘enthusiastic’ consent, or more recently, ‘retractable’ consent.

In Angel’s words, ‘we don’t just want women to agree to sex initiated by men, but to want sex themselves, to feel excited about it, and to move in the world with their own desires and demands’. In keeping with her sharp critique, these qualified additions are insufficient in her view. Even ‘affirmative consent’ is still consent to someone else’s proposition.

But the problem with consent is not that sex can and should never be contractual—the safety of sex workers relies precisely on the notion of a contract, and the possibility of its violation, in order that they can be understood as having been assaulted. Nor is it that consent is unsexy or unromantic. The problem, instead, is that an attachment to consent as the rubric for our thinking about sex … ignores a crucial aspect of being a person: that individuals do not bear equal relationships of power to one another.

The issue of power underpins all the arguments in this book. For instance, Angel documents some of the different situations in which women consent to sex that they may not desire: being financially or emotionally indebted; being afraid (of being sacked, deported, or evicted); feeling threatened or trapped; as an insurance for personal safety; in order to feed children; and so on. Women, everywhere and every day, consent to sex that they do not want, she writes, due to their unequal power. This is not power as a personal feeling or as ‘empowerment’, nor as positivity and confident speech—something that can purportedly be learned and performed. It is structurally based, institutionalised, economic, embodied inequality. Again, following Foucault, she underlines that ‘we must not think that by saying yes to sex one says no to power’.

In Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again I was struck by the analysis of sex research and the extent to which certain findings about female sexual arousal have been accepted uncritically. Angel targets the wide cultural import given to the work of William Masters and Virginia Johnson in the mid-1960s and its continued influence today. She traces what she calls the glib sex positivity of postfeminism to the questionable model of female sexual arousal ‘discovered’ by these researchers ‘heroically peering into the female body’. They promoted a picture of sexuality as linear and reliable, and developed a model of sexual arousal in which physiological responses are the crucial data to indicate unambiguous desire. This measurement model of physiological, genital response has been used against women in rape trials where vaginal lubrication is invoked as incontrovertible proof of desire and therefore consent. ‘The fact of physiological arousal during assault can seem shocking and confusing’, Angel reflects, ‘but only if we assume that physiological arousal has something straightforward to tell us about pleasure, enjoyment, desire or consent’. It is the ‘they wanted it’ defence. While this book does not discuss child sexual abuse, it is worth noting that a similar defence is familiar to those studying the discourses of adult perpetrators. As testimonies in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse reveal, to the abuser and to the victim, an autonomic (read, involuntary) physiological response (a child’s erection, for example) can be mistaken as desire or enjoyment, absolving guilt in the former and installing it in the latter.

A mechanistic, instrumental, linear model of arousal permeates sexology, popular culture, advice manuals on sex and the courts. Angel calls this ‘the model of responsive desire’, which has become something women are told they need to strive to achieve. Unsurprisingly, this model is also reproduced in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). ‘There is no category for women in the DSM which includes the term “desire”—women are instead diagnosed with Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder (FSIAD)’. It is as though women do not possess any desire that can then become disordered. ‘Men have desire disorders’, Angel notes, while ‘women have disorders of interest and arousal’. If only women could strive more to become interested and aroused, then sex will become good again, sometime in the future.

Consent laws that require consent to be ‘non-coerced’ or ‘affirmative’ and ‘enthusiastic’ can, to a limited extent, according to Angel, differentiate sex from assault. As we all recognise, though, even a known and confidently stated desire is not necessarily enough to protect a person from sexual violence. Moreover, a consent culture that promotes sex positivity and women’s receptivity to sex as a defining aspect of female sexuality remains ill-equipped to deal with desire’s elusiveness. The focus on responsiveness therefore is not a welcome turn towards female desire, or as a solution to all sexual ills, as proponents of consent would have us believe. Against this ideology, Angel turns to American sex educator Emily Nagoski from Come As You Are. Nagoski argues that genital response ‘is not desire. It’s not even pleasure—it is simply response’.

Angel’s book poses an alternative to this ‘model of responsive desire’ through an excursion into the influential clinical work of Rosemary Basson, director of the Centre for Sexual Medicine at the University of British Columbia. Basson insists that ‘sexuality is lived in context, and that this context is not always conducive to women’s enjoyment’. She names sexism, misogyny and inequality as just some of the hindrances. Far from turning to confidence culture as a solution for women or advising women to rationally weigh up considerations of benefit and risk each time they have sex, Basson conjures a different image that allows for the strangeness and complexity of sexual desire. Against the limits of consent culture, Angel comes down on the side of this alternative image, allowing for a sexuality that is unfolding, one that acknowledges ‘obstacles, glitches, interruptions, and inhibitions’, something relational and contextual, where desire is not known and fixed in advance. It is an image that both complicates and problematises current understandings of consent.

A very different approach to consent is taken by Louise Perry in The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. Perry describes herself as a journalist, author and campaigner, and her book is unflinchingly polemical. Like Katherine Angel, she takes issue with seductively simple ideas about consent derived from liberal individualism. Unlike Angel, she shows little interest in desire as elusive and unstable and calls for virtue to be accorded more status than desire as far as sex is concerned. This minimising of the role of desire is accompanied by an almost exclusively heterosexual focus. The book is written in media-savvy prose and has generated considerable attention in the mainstream press. Perry argues for more clear-cut and socially regulated categories, not the nuanced thinking called for by Angel. Even a cursory look at her chapter titles illustrates this bid for definitional clarity: ‘Men and Women Are Different’; ‘Some Desires Are Bad’; ‘Loveless Sex Is Not Empowering’; ‘Consent Is Not Enough’; Listen to Your Mother’.

Perry has many targets in her sights. She rejects the narrative of progress that accompanies the idea of sexual liberation. She announces: ‘I am writing in a more deliberate and focused way against a liberal narrative of sexual liberation which I think is not only wrong but also harmful’. She rails against cultural messages given to young women that market-based success can be pursued unconstrained by the limits of a female body. These messages include that they can freeze their eggs, hire a surrogate, Fed-Ex their expressed breast milk to newborns in another city or country, or use medical technology to ‘step-out of’ their female body:

Liberal feminism promises women freedom—and when that promise comes up against the hard limits imposed by biology, then the ideology directs women to chip away at those limits through the use of money, technology and the bodies of poorer people.

Other targets include the normalisation of sexual aggression through pornography, a hook-up culture that in her view promotes ‘having sex like a man’ and what she calls the ‘disenchantment of sex’—the post-1960s belief in the West that sex means nothing.

All this taken together might sound like overstatement or moral panic. Yet for the most part, Perry manages to situate her critique in opposition to neoliberal orthodoxies and against a view of people as ‘freewheeling, atomised individuals, all looking out for number one and all up for a good time’. She assembles disturbing evidence of the pain, injury and coercion women have suffered under the guise of sex positivity. She identifies contradictory and fraudulent (in her view) advice given to young women on twenty-first century university campuses. She paints a picture of how during university orientation young women are given lectures on consent and come away with ‘ “I heart consent” badges and tote bags’. The rule they are taught is simple enough, according to Perry: ‘with consent, anything goes’. In this campus advice, certain, things can no longer be said. This may concern women’s vulnerability when drunk, or that ‘men are bigger and stronger’ than them. While students carry their ‘I heart consent’ tote bags, the United States boasts the largest number of BDSM clubs on university campuses. Perry asks why so few ‘liberal feminists are willing to draw the link between the culture of sexual hedonism they promote and the anxieties over campus rape that have emerged at exactly the same time’.

Perry excels at pointing out contradictions in consent culture. Of the purported ‘fashion for strangulation’, she asks why, if women are meant to enjoy it so much, is there not one case in the United Kingdom of a women dying by autoerotic self-asphyxiation. By contrast, there are cases of men who ‘accidentally killed themselves during a misjudged masturbation session’. However, she does document the range of brain injuries, including strokes, seizures and paralysis, that women have suffered from non-fatal, consensual strangulation. Consent is not enough, she repeats. Perry is an active part of the We Can’t Consent to This campaign, which has ‘documented sixty-seven cases in the UK in which people have been killed and their killers have claimed that their deaths were the result of a sex game “gone wrong” ’. Sixty were women, and most died of strangulation, Perry asserts. It is impossible not to be disturbed by the evidence she presents.

Unlike those promoting ‘sex positivity’, Perry is not averse to saying women are deluded or have been conned. Her book is an unqualified rejection of a neoliberal sexual consensus that ‘anything goes’ as long as a person consents to it. It is a provocation, her founding premise being that men and women are different and that this difference has an evolutionary rather than a cultural or social basis. According to this view, women have a preoccupation with loyalty and commitment, ‘even if this is shown in violent ways’. They purportedly misread jealousy in a partner as a sign of fidelity. As a product of our evolution, Perry continues, ‘men have a higher ‘sociosexuality’—a desire for more sexual variation. This has produced what she calls a ‘sexuality gap’, with all societies finding different solutions to bridging it. Our modern (and untenable) solution’, Perry argues, ‘is to encourage all women, from every class, to meet the male demand for casual sex’.

It is more than troubling to see the spectre of sociobiology appear in this text, with all its seductive simplicity and its dark, deterministic implications. It deforms Perry’s otherwise challenging case against the narrative of progress of the sexual revolution. For power to be conceived of in these evolutionary terms, rather than as something structural and socially reproduced, is significantly short-sighted. Her analysis embodies the strengths and weaknesses of viewing women as a class through a radical feminist lens. The strengths are that in paring away differences between women, we cannot shy away from the stark evidence of pervasive abuse. The weakness, of course, is that there is little analysis of which women are accorded the opportunity to consent, and how differences based on class, ethnicity, physical appearance or political identity may play out in consent culture.

While to some extent this book fulfils its title, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, its subtitle, which promises A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century, is much more problematic and contradictory. ‘Imitating the past cannot teach us how to live in the twenty-first century’, Perry acknowledges, alongside recognising that it is neither ‘possible nor desirable’ to return to the 1950s. Yet the ‘new’ solutions she proposes to reduce the so-called ‘sexuality gap’ are highly individualised on the one hand, and a reinstatement of institutions that have failed to secure the safety and well-being of all women on the other. Most of her advice is uncontroversial, some more persuasive than others. We should ‘treat our sexual partners with dignity’, as people and not body parts: ‘Sex must be taken seriously … Some desires are bad. Consent is not enough. Violence is not love. Loveless sex is not empowering’. But when men are called upon to ‘tame themselves’ and make themselves ‘marriageable’, to set up households and become fathers, this ‘solution’ has not proved to have such a protective function for women and children in either the present or the past.

This representation of the benefits for a society and for women of the imposition of monogamy and marriage is a serious flaw in Perry’s ‘guide to sex’. While she heeds the feminist critique of marriage, she concludes that there isn’t ‘any better system’. Think of the experience of women and girls under enforced or sacralised marriage by the Taliban or in Hindu India or in fundamentalist Christianity, for example. Despite Perry’s convincing critique of liberal feminism, the problem of sex, desire and consent is not just a neoliberal issue. It crosses the political spectrum. Paradoxically, her book’s conclusion returns to individual women (and men) bearing the burden of rational decision-making and calculation about sex and desire and what should and should not be acted upon. We seem to have come full circle, and ended up where we started, in the perilous land of consent once again.

Of these two books, Angel’s is the one that refuses to accept either a mechanistic, individualised model of consent or an unconflicted notion of sexual desire. Her analysis demonstrates that this is a site of unresolvable struggle rather than a field where transparent solutions are easily within reach. In this respect, her book is more of an antidote to liberal narratives of sexual freedom than Perry’s radical feminist critique. So-called advances for women under the sign of feminist empowerment can bring unintended punitive effects, as both books render in confronting detail. Both provide insight into the inadequacy of consent being designated the solution to all the things that can possibly go wrong in a sexual encounter. They also succeed in warning us about the nature of the social consensus underpinning consent culture, and work as a reminder that something crucial is always being denied when such ideas are promoted as just simple common sense.

About the author

Julie Stephens

Julie Stephens is an academic and author who practises psychoanalysis in Melbourne.

More articles by Julie Stephens

Categorised: Arena Quarterly #14

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